Phillip Roth and Cynthia Ozick, two scions of American Jewish letters, have published new novels in 2004, the year marking the 350th anniversary of Jewish settlement in the United States. Roth's "The Plot Against America" and Ozick's "Heir to the Glimmering World" differ in many ways but fundamental to both works is a deep concern with history. Both books deal with the complexities of interpreting history in the pivotal decades of the `30s and `40s, eras in which American Jews felt a great chasm between their self-image as the model upwardly mobile ethnic group and the very real exigencies of fascism and economic slump. In this celebratory anniversary year, why do Roth and Ozick opt to tell stories of Jewish America in the moment before the wide-scale decimation of world Jewry?

An analysis of Roth's novel provides a partial answer. In contrast to most writers of literary fiction, who would happily engage in a Faustian pact with the devil to get their novels reviewed in the New York Times, Philip Roth publishes his books with the expectation that they will be greeted not just with front page publicity in literary taste-making venues, but also with reviewers willing to devote unprecedented critical energy to discerning his intentions. "The Plot" is no exception. Roth's novel is a dystopian fantasy, the author's imagining of an America in which the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh succeeds FDR as president of the United States and embarks on a program of coercive assimilation of American Jewry at the same time that he refuses to aid the Allied powers in battling Hitler's decimation of Europe's Jewish population. Critics are quick to question the impetus for Roth's historical nightmare. Reviewers in publications from the Village Voice to Ha'aretz are asking: What exactly does Roth mean by "The Plot Against America"? What is he trying to tell his readers by imagining a `30s and `40s America in which Jewry is in decline? What is he doing depicting a history of the Jews in America in which successful integration into every facet of American life is not a given?

None of the critics who have expended their considerable energy to determine Roth's intentions in The Plot Against America, however, have commented on one of the primary factors that distinguishes this book from his other literary creations. What makes Roth's latest novel unique within the prolific author's oeuvre is its protagonist. The Plot Against America is told through the eyes of a seven year old child (a playful fictionialization of the author, whom Roth gives his own name), rather than from the point of view of the simmering adolescent or adult males that usually inhabit his fictional world. The unchecked libidinous energy that sends Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman and all the other Rothian anti-heroes sniffing after shiksas is absent from the new novel.

Instead, Roth offers an account of a world slowly being discovered by a sheltered Jewish boy, a tale told from a place of comparative innocence. The fact that Roth tells the story of the dissolution of this world - a world in which American Jews take their security and sense of belonging for granted - from the point of view of a contented child makes his narrative all the more affecting. But, Roth goes even further. Not only does he set the story of American Jewry imperiled in his protagonist's (and, by extension, his own) vaunted pre-adolescence, he situates the novel itself in a time of innocence and unselfconscious security for all of America's Jews. The "pre-adolescence" of American Jewry was coterminous with his own. Roth's nightmare of anti-Semitism come home to roost in America is set in a landscape of pre-, a landscape of Jewish identity prior to the Holocaust and the foundation of Israel, and the subsequent need to negotiate Jewish American identity against the complicated backdrop of a Jewish genocide and a Jewish nation-state. The novel reads like a Fall from Eden.

It is also a meditation on the uniqueness of the Jewish romance with America, both as a place and an idea. Throughout The Plot Against America, as Roth depicts the steady growth of anti-Semitism in America under the Lindbergh regime through the eyes of young Philip, he refuses to take what might have been the easy route in a novel about anti-Semitism: pitting "Jews" against "Christians" or cosmopolitan philo-Semites against Jew-hating hicks. Instead, he makes it clear that Lindbergh is successful in America precisely because he represents a variant of "the American dream", a dream that seduces Jews just as much as it does other Americans.

When the assimilated German-Jewish Rabbi Bengelsdorf chooses Philip's older brother Sandy to be one of the first Jewish boys to participate in the Lindbergh-devised "Just Folks" program, the Roth family balks. Their intellectually precocious Sandy, never having set foot outside the Jewish area of Newark, will be spending the summer of his thirteenth year working on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. However, when Sandy returns from the summer tanned and brawny, flexing his newly-formed muscles, young Philip and his parents can't help but be impressed. They, too, see something magical about the American land and the virile farmer who works it. Sandy rattles off statistics about curing barns and tobacco stalks and cutting tools, and the family recognizes that he has learned a new, uniquely American argot, one that gives him entry into a privileged sphere of `real Americans', a sphere which excludes his parents. While Herman and Bess Roth are concerned about their son's newfound sense of superiority, they, like young Sandy, remain in thrall to a certain idea of the American pastoral and the attendant sense that authentic Americanness comes from having roots in the land. As Roth portrays it, this link to the land is appreciated more by that archetypically landless people, the Jews, than by any descendant of those who came to America on the Mayflower.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus